By BOB YORK
Chris Kaimmer has always loved the game of soccer. As a player, however, it never loved him back.
“I wasn’t very good at it … I played it as though I had two left feet,” quipped Kaimmer, who, despite his unrequited love, still found a way to wrap his life around the sport he feels so passionate about. The former Noble and Greenough School soccer coach accomplished that by creating Woza Soccer, a summer service program that affords high school and college soccer players the opportunity to travel the world and use their sport to build bridges and link cultures.
“I’ve discovered that everywhere we’ve gone, the sport of soccer connects people of different cultures in a way few other things can,” said Kaimmer, whose summer sojourns take campers to Costa Rica, Peru, South Africa and Malawi. “The goal of every trip is to immerse our participants in the soccer culture of the country we’re visiting and because we use the game in such a manner, our players are able to experience soccer’s unique ability to break down racial, cultural and social barriers and create an incredible experience wherever we visit.”
Last summer, Kaimmer’s campers combined to spend 1,700 hours working with their international partners. They tutored youth players during morning clinics, helped build new soccer fields and rehabilitate old ones during the afternoons. Evenings would feature games pitting players of the same age against each other, and Kaimmer always mixed and matched the team rosters with an equal number of campers and host-country players, “because we never wanted these games to be seen as us-versus-them.”
These trips are well planned and preparation begins well in advance of the tours. For example, Kaimmer has established a “Before We Go” list that directs all players to conduct soccer-gear drives. And so, last summer, Woza donated 207 pairs of cleats, a dozen sets of team jerseys and 118 soccer balls to its international partners.
Kaimmer realized, however, that this dream of his could only become reality if he was able to find a qualified staff of team leaders to assist him. Finding such leadership qualities was one thing, but convincing these prospects to buy into his dream was another.
Kaimmer’s “Help Wanted” sign quickly paid dividends, however. He found numerous candidates who not only proved themselves qualified, but showed they relished the challenge of turning his vision into something authentic. Kaimmer didn’t have to look very far to find qualified applicants, either, as New England Prep School Athletic Council school grads submitted their applications. Among those who jumped in to help Woza draw its first breathe were Liam White (Milton Academy) and MaryClaire Pelletier (Worcester Academy) as well as Kim Bohlin, Lawrence Academy’s girls soccer coach.
“Getting involved with Woza has been a truly rewarding experience for me,” said White, who earned both All-New England and all-league honors during his soccer career at Milton (’14). “Before I became involved with Woza, I never would have believed the game could have such social and cultural impact on people … but it does.”
White, a junior at Northwestern University who was named to both NEPSAC and Independent School League all-star teams his junior and senior seasons, insists he has received as much from his experience as he has given – and possibly more.
“I’m studying global health and anthropology,” said White, “and having had an opportunity to serve as a team leader for Woza has proven invaluable to me. My goal is to help give people in underdeveloped communities an opportunity to live better and healthier lives and Woza has really helped prepare me for that.”
When reminiscing about his initial trip that took him to Zululand, South Africa, three years ago, Kaimmer remembers it distinctly, because “I still remember watching one of our players dribble a soccer ball along a dirt road near the center of town,” said Kaimmer. “He set out all by himself and although he didn’t understand the language the people spoke, all he needed was that soccer ball that he was dribbling to attract youngsters of all ages to come out and join him … it was truly an awesome sight.”
While watching this phenomenon, Kaimmer remembers hearing the youngsters shouting “Woza! …. Woza! … Woza!” It would be a word he would hear incessantly during that trip and when he asked for its translation, he quickly understood the reason for its frequent use.
“In Zulu, Woza means ‘bring,’ as in bring me the ball … or pass me the ball,” explained Kaimmer. “It was the first word I ever learned on our trip. It seemed so simple … so beautiful … so perfect. That’s why I named our program Woza Soccer.”
“It’s been an unbelievable experience,” said Pelletier of her three summer treks with Woza. “Unless you’ve experienced it first-hand, you have no idea how magnetic a soccer ball can be. I guarantee you that even if you don’t know the language that is spoken in a certain country, a soccer ball is all you need to start a game with a bunch of total strangers … and put a smile on everyone’s face.
“I think going on a service trip brings you back to why you began playing the game and while you’re still playing it … because you love it,” added Pelletier, a three-sport athlete at Worcester (’11) who earned All-NEPSAC and all-league honors in soccer. “With all these kids surrounding you and showing you their passion for the sport, it’s just an unbelievable atmosphere to be a part of.”
Pelletier, who is studying at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, didn’t leave her all-star status behind once she graduated from Worcester. She matriculated to William Smith College, where she attained Div. III All-American status and helped the school reach the Div. III NCAA Championship game in 2013.
Although Kaimmer, who grew up in Seattle and attended high school there, has played the game all of his life, he never really became successful at it until he took up a permanent residence along the sidelines – as coach of the Nobles girls JV soccer team.
“If anyone knows anything about Nobles sports, they know the school has an outstanding girls soccer program,” said Kaimmer, “In fact, they’re perennial favorites to win both the Independent School League and the New England championship and I just felt very lucky to have been a part of it.”
Even as a rookie mentor, Kaimmer did his part to keep the torch burning brightly at Nobles. That first year, his squad went 14-2, while his second season it chalked up an undefeated (16-0) season. His girls, however, saved their best for last – Kaimmer’s third and final season at the school – by not only posting another perfect season, but by not allowing a single goal through the 16-game schedule.
“I know they don’t keep track of such things,” said Kaimmer, “but I bet that year, that team had to be one of the best JV girls soccer teams in the country. I followed the progress those players continued to make after I left Nobles and they all contributed greatly to the varsity’s winning tradition and that’s something I’m very proud of.”
“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Chris as part of the Nobles community … both in the classroom and on the athletic field,” said Alex Gallagher, the school’s athletic director and fellow member of the school’s history department. “Chris always knew exactly where he wanted things to finish … whether it be a semester or a season. And to insure that, he would meticulously work backward in his preparation process to be certain he was able cover everything from the first day through the final day.
“Chris went about forming Woza in the same manner,” added Gallagher. “ He thoroughly planned everything out and then delivered on everything he planned. It’s the way he does things and because of that, I always knew this project would be a success … as did everyone else here who knew him.”
Due to her position as Lawrence Academy’s girls soccer coach, Bohlin received an email early on from Kaimmer as to his venture and not only passed the information on, but decided to sign on as well.
“It sounded like a great idea and as it turned out, it was,” said Bohlin, who has been a fixture at Lawrence for the past eight years, where her teams have earned four NEPSAC tourney invites and made its way to the finals once.
“Being a member of Woza Soccer was a truly rewarding experience’” added Bohlin, who earned All-Middlesex League honors at Winchester High School before being named All-New England and All-NESCAC her junior and senior years at Bowdoin College. “Watching our kids play the role of coaches in the daily clinics was something I’ll never forget. Having the opportunity to see these kids evolve into leaders was really inspiring.”
Although Kaimmer’s time with New England prep schools was brief, he knew where to look to generate interest in this fledgling program and help get it off the ground. He began by recruiting at NEPSAC schools – and they didn’t disappoint.
"That initial expedition in 2014 consisted of roughly 12 players, "with about half that number representing NEPSAC schools, including Nobles," said Kaimmer. "The rest came from my home city of Seattle. Without those NEPSAC kids, however, and the backing of their parents, who believed in this program, we never would have been able to get it up and running."
“Thanks to them, Woza not only got off the ground, but has flourished every year since,” added Kaimmer. “The number of participants has consistently risen over the first three years … as has the number of NEPSAC recruits … and we’re hoping to have more than 100 players registered for this summer.”
Even during his days at Yale, Kaimmer, a history major, found time to combine his love of soccer with a flair for organizing by creating a club soccer team at the school.
Yale has long had a club soccer program – known as Club 1 – that, as Kaimmer explained, “was designated for the ‘Best of the Rest,’ after the varsity cuts were made.” In an attempt to create a home for those who couldn’t make Club 1, like himself, Kaimmer started Club 2, which was "more of a Revenge of the Nerds-type situation, but we still played pretty good soccer." From Kaimmer’s standpoint, “of all the things that made being at Yale so special, starting that soccer team was the most important to me."
“It gave a lot of guys, like me, a chance to play the game we all shared a passion for,” said Kaimmer. “It was a lot of fun and best of all … we beat Club 1 our senior year.”
With graduation approaching, Kaimmer admitted that “I had no idea what I wanted to do ... there were a number of well-worn paths out of Yale that I could have taken, but they just didn’t seem right for me.” Two things that did seem right to Kaimmer, however, were soccer and travel, and he was able to partake in both when he joined Grassroot Soccer (GRS) and headed for South Africa.
“GRS uses soccer to connect young people with mentors, information and health services,” explained Kaimmer. “Its primary focus is helping youth in developing countries live healthier lives by making them aware of HIV/AIDS.
“GRS uses local professional soccer players to help educate them,” added Kaimmer. “Plus, it puts messages and tips for living healthier lives on the kids’ practice equipment and uniforms to give them constant reminders of how to stay safe and healthy. It was an eye-opening experience and why I created Woza.
“It’s funny, but before I got involved with GRS and before I founded Woza, I saw soccer as a sport that I really had a passion for,” said Kaimmer. “Now, I see soccer as a secret weapon we can use to help knock down the racial, cultural and social barriers that separate the people of the world.”